Cross-Cultural Understanding Through Game Analysis

Games travel across cultures easily, unlike most other cultural phenomena; game analysis suggests that this is because we play according to similar rules.

| July 2015

In The Aesthetic of Play (The MIT Press, 2015), game designer Brian Upton analyzes the experience of play—how playful activities unfold from moment to moment and how the rules we adopt constrain that unfolding. Upton also explores the role of play in the construction of meaning and what the existence of play says about the relationship between our thoughts and external reality. The following excerpt is from chapter 1, “Defining Play.”

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Everyone plays.

From the pre-Columbian ball courts of Central America, to the board games of the Indian subcontinent, from the rope-skipping games of the Outback, to the pebble-and-pit games of Africa, from the chivalric tournaments of medieval Europe, to videogames in modern Japan—everywhere we look, in every era and every culture, we find games, and humans playing them.



More important, everywhere we look, how we play is the same. As long as I take a few minutes to learn the rules, I can play a game that originated in Germany, or Ghana, or Peru, or ancient Mesopotamia, and it will function properly for me as a game. It will contain the same mix of obstacles and affordances that all games do—the arbitrary restrictions that block easy progress, the obvious opportunities for meaningful action, the delicate balance between knowledge and uncertainty. As a beginner, I may not play well, but the experience of playing will nevertheless feel comfortable and familiar.

This is a remarkable thing. Most cultural practices aren’t that portable. Most of the time when we encounter something from an unfamiliar culture our initial experience is a bit detached and awkward; we aren’t able to jump right in and fully engage. For example, if I attend a performance of Chinese opera, I may be able to appreciate it on a superficial level as a vivid spectacle, but my lack of knowledge of Chinese culture will cut me off from the bulk of the performance. If I want to participate as an audience member, I need to learn a lot more about the context of what I’m looking at. I need to learn thousands of little details about Chinese history, etiquette, music, mythology, and family relations. This process of acculturation can take years, sometimes even a lifetime.